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Newsletter: Opinion: Another attack in France, another round of Muslim-bashing

Police officers and rescue workers stand near a truck that plowed into a crowd leaving a fireworks display in Nice, France, on July 14.
(Valery Hache / AFP/ Getty Images)

Good morning. I’m Paul Thornton, The Times’ letters editor, and it is Saturday, July 16. Here’s a look back at the week in Opinion.

How much more terrorism can France take? After yet another attack in that country — this time in Nice, where a driver plowed a truck into a crowd of Bastille Day revelers — at least 84 people are dead and authorities are busy gathering evidence to determine how it happened.

But in the United States, some talking heads seem to possess answers that French investigators have yet to produce. Newt Gingrich, for example, called for government monitoring of mosques, a recommendation that earned him the scorn of The Times’ editorial board:

In the face of such a threat, people need leaders adept at analyzing data and thinking creatively about intelligence gathering and risk reduction. Sadly, former House speaker and onetime GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich (who now serves as a proxy of sorts for presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump) offered none of the above on Fox News Channel on Thursday when he called for the United States to deport Muslims who fail his personal litmus test for Islamic radicalism.

In addition to blaming President Obama and other “Western elites who lack the guts to do what is right,” Gingrich argued that the Nice attack was an outgrowth of a war between Western civilization and radical Islam. Gingrich told Fox News’ Sean Hannity shortly after news of the attack broke, “We should frankly test every person here who is of a Muslim background, and if they believe in sharia, they should be deported. Sharia is incompatible with Western civilization. Modern Muslims who have given up sharia, glad to have them as citizens. Perfectly happy to have them next door. But we need to be fairly relentless about defining who our enemies are.”

It’s notable how quickly Gingrich leaped to the conclusion that the incident was a particular brand of terrorism, given that the driver of the truck hadn’t even been identified at that point. And he may be proved right. Yet it’s profoundly un-American to bar people from living in this country based on their religious beliefs. (Gingrich later said on Facebook that he wouldn’t target any U.S. citizen based on his or her religious practices, but he would impose a tough, beliefs-based test on Muslim noncitizens in or seeking to enter the country.) And there’s an important distinction between sharia, which refers to a divinely inspired way of life, and sharia law, which is a set of rules drawn up by religious leaders and, as such, interpretations can vary from sect to sect.

Even assuming that Gingrich is referring just to Muslims who favor an extreme version of sharia law, that still doesn’t translate necessarily into support for terrorism. He’s searching for a small group of people, but rounding up a large one. Besides, what are the chances that would-be terrorists would be stupid enough to flunk the test and get deported? And how does a beliefs test today help with someone who’s radicalized tomorrow?

Instead of casting broad and relatively indiscriminate nets, investigators need to keep sifting the data for patterns that can help identify what sorts of individuals are doing these attacks, where are they getting their weapons (Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, the man authorities say was responsible for the Nice attack, was reportedly armed with automatic weapons, which raises the obvious question of how he obtained them), and how they are financing their exploits. Some researchers say that Omar Mateen, who launched a murderous assault on a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., last month, had much in common with a garden-variety mass shooter. If investigators were more attuned to that profile, would they have kept a closer eye on Mateen instead of dismissing reports of his suspicious behavior?

And even then, there may be no practical way to guard against a solo terrorist acting on his or her own initiative. French President François Hollande announced that, instead of lifting the national state of emergency declared after the attacks in Paris, he would extend it for three more months. In addition to continuing the deployment of thousands of extra troops at potential terrorist targets, the measure grants the government greater surveillance power, including the ability to search homes without a warrant and impose house arrest on suspects. Yet those measures obviously didn’t stop Bouhlel.

Some, like Gingrich, argue that the problem is the government’s failure to create a more extensive surveillance state. In his interview with Hannity, Gingrich called for monitoring Muslims’ activity online and their mosques. “I mean, if you're not prepared to monitor the mosques, this whole thing is a joke,” he said. “Where do you think the primary source of recruitment is?” But early reports question whether Bouhlel even attended a mosque.

» Click here to read more.

Mike Pence cannot redeem Donald Trump. The Indiana governor balances out the Republican ticket only because he has any governing experience at all, a fact that underscores how deeply unqualified the party’s presumptive presidential nominee is. Says The Times’ editorial board, “Even if Pence were the reincarnation of Abraham Lincoln, his presence on the ticket won’t alter the fact that the Republican candidate for president is a shallow self-promoter who traffics in bigotry and bluster.” L.A. Times

Pence wanted to please everyone. He frustrated everyone instead. The principled conservative in Congress turned into the calculating but stumbling ladder-climber once he became governor of Indiana, writes journalist (and Hoosier) Craig Fehrman. In a way, that makes Pence an ideal choice for Trump’s No. 2: “He’ll do what he’s told, even if it contradicts his actual beliefs, just so long as it’s good for the career of Mike Pence.” L.A. Times

Gun fans and foes fire away in letters to the editor. Pro-gun crime researcher John R. Lott Jr. says his research shows that mass killers do indeed target so-called gun-free zones, and that having more people carrying concealed weapons would make everyone safer. A letter writer on the other side of this issue accuses gun nuts of blindness to the facts because of their love for firearms.

Score one for Trump. No, seriously. It isn’t often you see The Times’ editorial page say “you know, he has a point” after Trump opens his mouth. But it an unprecedented act by a sitting Supreme Court justice — Ruth Bader Ginsburg calling the Republican nominee a “faker,” among other insults — roused the editorial board to rise to Trump’s defense. L.A. Times

But Ginsburg is right about Trump. Readers say Trump is no ordinary candidate, and Ginsburg is right to break decorum and warn the nation of an “imminent threat to its survival.” L.A. Times

“Pokémon Go” is a work of art, not a social movement. Everyone, from pundits to police departments, is singing the praises of the augmented reality quest that has packs of smartphone-wielding gamers roaming our city sidewalks. But to praise “Pokémon Go” for the social well-being it encourages misses the point, writes Virginia Heffernan. L.A. Times

Self-important Silicon Valley even has its own language. Joe Mathews writes that the indecipherable jargon of that part of California (do you know what “acqui-hire” or “unicorpse” mean?) highlights just how walled off Silicon Valley is from the rest of the state: “Valley types, if they engage at all, are far more likely to engage internationally on regulatory or climate change issues than they do here in California. The Valley rarely raises its voice on the fundamentals of state governance: school funding, health care, prisons and public universities.” Sacramento Bee

Reach me: paul.thornton@latimes.com


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